By: John Berthelsen

Prosecuting an adequate foreign policy in Asia for the United States “requires mastering a strategic concept at least as complex as three-dimensional chess,” according to Michael J Green, who served on the National Security Council staff as a special adviser to George W Bush.

“To use that analogy, on the top of the board, the United States must seek to reinforce a rules-based regional order underpinned by US leadership and backed by strong alliances, partnerships, trade agreements and multilateral engagement. On the middle board, the US will have to work toward a stable and productive relationship with China, constantly seeking new areas of cooperation based on a recognition of how much China can potentially contribute to global progress and prosperity. On the bottom board, the United States will have to continue ensuring that it has the military capabilities and posture necessary to defeat any attempts to overturn the current regional order through force.”

Think about the implications of that paragraph in connection with the government installed by President Donald Trump on January 20, 2016, and the astonishing damage the administration has done to the US position in Asia. The United States, Green writes, emerged as the preeminent power in the Pacific “not by providence alone but through the effective (if not always efficient) application of military, diplomatic, economic and ideational tools of national power to the problems of Asia.”  That 200-year campaign is now clearly over.

Green, now a senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC as well as a member of the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, has written the most deeply-researched, cogent and important book I have ever read on the US experience in the Asia Pacific, “By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific since 1783,” published in mid-2017. It is also badly flawed and has to be read in recognition that Green was a Vulcan, a member of the foreign policy team that advised Bush prior to his election in 2000.

Containing 174 pages of notes, bibliography and index in its 723 pages, it is arguably the most exhaustive history of the US presence in Asia going back to the founding of the Republic with the landing in what was then Canton of the clipper ship Empress of China at the Whampoa dock. 

The book is an invaluable resource, a history of president-by-president Asia policy from George Washington to through Barack Obama drawn from hundreds of official sources and Green’s own experience. After the chapter on the administration of Gerald Ford, it needs to be read extremely carefully and critically. Although Green served as an adviser in the Clinton administration and as a member of the NSC under Bush the younger, it is clear where his heart is. 

Even before that there are some significant elisions. The 1965 Gulf of Tonkin resolution is dealt with in a single sentence without mention of the fact that the linchpin for the resolution was a supposed attack on the US destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy by North Vietnam patrol boats during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. But the fact is that no such attack ever took place. The justification for US entry to a tragic war that took perhaps a million Vietnamese lives and 57,000 American ones was built on a lie.

There are other shortcomings. President Clinton’s decision to send two aircraft carrier battle groups to intercede in Chinese rocket rattling against the Strait of Taiwan gets short shrift although many analysts regarded it as a courageous strategic move.  Barack Obama is accused of waffling – which he did – although Edward Luce, in his new book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” gives Obama rather higher marks.

Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz is called “the most effective secretary of state for Asia-Pacific policy in the history of the republic, which be news to Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Edward Stettinius, James F Byrnes and others. 

While he gives George H W Bush his due – a far more effective president than most give him credit for – Green far overplays Bush the younger, whose administration “came into office with a clear strategic concept on Asia focused on shaping a favorable geopolitical equilibrium in the region, and that generally held through a series of short-term crises and the attacks of 9/11.” He gives only passing reference to the infamous Bush Doctrine, which included not only unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM treaty, rejecting the Kyoto protocol, and a willingness to start preemptive wars, which meant that Asia cannot be considered separately from a long series of international disasters that reduced global approbation of US foreign policy.

His declaration of a “war on terror” included “rendition” of those suspected of terrorist activities to black site where they were tortured unmercifully.  The Bush administration also split its forces between Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting neither war very well. As a result, both countries ended up in a botch. In the wake of 9/11, when the world needed effective law enforcement and intelligence-gathering instead of the blunderbuss of twin invasions, Bush ridiculed John Kerry, his opponent in his second presidential race, as “fundamentally misunderstanding the war on terror.” The fact is that Kerry understood it a lot better than Bush did, to America’s deep misfortune. 

Having said all that, the value in Green’s book is its deep wealth of detail about how successive governments – even the Bush 43 one – have conducted enormously layered foreign policies, not just in the Asia Pacific but across the world.  For those interested in foreign policy, it is a must read, especially given the tragedy that is being visited on US strategic interests by the current administration.

Trump, as Luce points out, “has chosen to drive America’s regional allies into China’s arms. Even Australia, which comes closest to US values, wants to enter China’s rival trade group, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.”  He voided the Transpacific Partnership, arguably over pique at Obama. At a time when a rising China is setting out to return to the global pre-eminence it enjoyed up to the 17th Century, throwing its weight around in East Asia, enormously skilled diplomacy is called for. Instead, Trump has decimated the State Department, appointed an oil man with no government experience as Secretary of State – and won’t listen to him even when he tries to talk sense into him.

The current president is not a man for three-dimensional chess. He is not a man for chess at all. As Luce points out – and Green probably would if he could add a chapter – the US has entered arguably the most dangerous period in the country’s history when it comes to Asian policy, if not global diplomacy overall.